In preparation for Easter, our senior pastor has encouraged us to memorize the 23rd Psalm. This is the hopeful essay on the idea that the “Lord is our shepherd.”
This task will be hard for me because of an embarrassing event I experienced when I was a teenager and a member of a small Protestant church in Portland. Here’s the story.
Thanks to my grandfather Sam, who picked me up every Sunday morning for church, I became a Christian at age 8. My dad was Catholic but never once took me to his church, just a block from home. And my mom didn’t believe in God for many years, until she converted and played wonderful music as our church pianist. She and my little sister Linda and I sang as a trio several times each year.
It was a strong tradition in this small Nazarene Church to celebrate Christmas on a special night, with the church teenagers in control. In 1949 I was 13 years old, so I could participate in this remarkable youth night. My role was to be a shepherd and walk slowly down the aisle carrying a seven-foot staff.
It is important to consider how novel this night was. All of the characters on the stage were real. On one side was a teenaged couple holding a live baby boy. On the other side, tethered to the podium, was a young goat on a short rope. Just behind the goat were three handsomely dressed shepherds: John, my older cousin Bill and me. We wore sandals, long coats and make-believe beards.
We waited for our cue to enter from the dark foyer in the back of the church. Our role was to walk single-file to the platform — John, Bill, and then myself. It was a full house that evening. Candles lit the auditorium and bright spotlights focused on the platform.
As the organ played “Silent Night,” we made our short trip to the stage, took our places and turned to face the audience. Cousin Bill leaned over and whispered: “Larry, your staff is upside-down. The hook is up. Turn it around!”
I pretended not to hear him. If I took his advice, everyone would see that I was a stupid shepherd who didn’t know which end was up.
But Bill persisted: “Larry, turn your staff now!” I obeyed, with dangerous results: The sharp end of my staff struck the little goat in the butt. In pain, he let out a loud bleat, broke from his tether and leaped into the audience. At the same time, baby Jesus began to cry.
The audience clapped, laughed and seemed to love the chaos. It took about 10 minutes for the ushers to catch the goat and lead it out the side door. I wished there was a side door for me, too. Totally embarrassed, I wanted to become invisible, but the program had to resume.
A girl walked to the podium and began to read the Christmas story: “In the same country, shepherds abided in the fields keeping watch over their flocks.”
Her untimely reading caused another riot of laughter, and I wondered if I would ever smile again in this church. This became my first and last time to be in the Christmas story. My acting days were over.
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